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Issue Date:  October 14, 2005

A woman who didn't behave

'Saving Aimee' showcases the life of evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson


It was in college that Kathie Lee Gifford first learned about Aimee Semple MacPherson. She was so intrigued by the early 20th-century evangelist that she began reading all she could about her. Now, more than 30 years later, she’s written “Saving Aimee,” a musical about MacPherson’s controversial life that premieres in October at the White Plains Performing Arts Center in White Plains, N.Y.

“In my years on ‘Good Morning, America’ and ‘Regis and Kathie Lee,’ I interviewed all the movers and shakers,” Ms. Gifford said during a telephone interview from her car as she headed to a rehearsal in Manhattan. “None could come close to Aimee. If Aimee had been a man, everybody would know her name and what she accomplished. I wanted to tell her story.”

Ms. Gifford wrote the show’s book and lyrics. David Pomeranz wrote the music, with additional music by David Friedman.

“We’re not whitewashing her life,” Ms. Gifford said. “What makes her fascinating is her warts. She’s an absolute gold mine dramatically.”

The warts include three marriages -- one ended in death, the other two in divorce -- a sensational 32-day disappearance about which she said she had been kidnapped and held in Mexico, a claim her critics countered with a charge she was having a tryst in California with her married lover; and the accumulation of large sums of money for her ministries from questionable sources such as the Ku Klux Klan and the prostitutes who were members of her congregation.

“Her life could have been ripped out of the headlines today,” Ms. Gifford said. “She was the first real queen of tabloid journalism.”

But MacPherson was far more than just a colorful character, Ms. Gifford said. She founded a ministry that started with her traveling the country, pitching a tent and playing the piano, and ended with radio shows, publications and the $1.5 million Angelus Temple she had built in Los Angeles.

“It’s extraordinary what she achieved. She saved 1.5 million people from starving during the Depression. She was a feminist in a patriarchal, chauvinistic society. She had the courage to use her gifts in the face of enormous obstacles.”

MacPherson died in 1944 at the age of 54 of what was determined to be an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. Her ministries continue in 20 foreign countries, draw about 100,000 followers in the United States and are spread further through two periodicals. Angelus Temple is still ministering in her example.

“They serve 50,000 people a week in Los Angeles, the most needy, the prostitutes and drug addicts,” Ms. Gifford said. “They take care of the underbelly. That’s what Aimee did.”

That charitable side of MacPherson also impressed Mr. Pomeranz. “She was completely and utterly catholic in the truest sense of the word,” he said during a telephone interview from his home in Clearwater, Fla. “These people [the Klan] might have been doing evil things, but in my opinion, she saw them as God’s children.”

Mr. Pomeranz knew little about MacPherson until he was having dinner several years ago with Ms. Gifford and her husband, Frank Gifford. They began telling him stories, hers gathered from her decades of reading, his from having heard MacPherson preach as a teenager at Angelus Temple.

“Who she was and what she did needs to be celebrated,” Mr. Pomeranz said. “Who she slept with and if she was taking pills is so secondary to who she was as an individual. She was the real deal.”

Related Web sites

David Pomeranz

Kathie Lee Gifford

White Plains Performing Arts Center

He also was inspired by another side of MacPherson. “She was truly a healer,” he said. One example that particularly impressed him reportedly happened when a journalist who set out to prove her a fraud brought along his son who had a clubfoot and MacPherson healed the child. “She was the first superstar evangelist. There’s enough right about this woman’s life to attribute and celebrate that is way over and above the other stuff.”

“Saving Aimee” is the second musical on which Mr. Pomeranz and Ms. Gifford have collaborated. In January their family musical “Under the Bridge” (NCR, Jan. 14) opened off-Broadway to mixed reviews.

In addition to her reading, Ms. Gifford also had long conversations with MacPherson’s children, a daughter, now 95, and a son, 91. “I’ve had so many unfair things said about me over the years,” Ms. Gifford said. “I said, ‘I’ll be extremely careful because I know how painful it can be.’ ”

Ms. Gifford said MacPherson’s legacy is that she remained true to her calling regardless of what stood in her way.

“Women who behave never make history,” Ms. Gifford said. “She didn’t behave. She broke a lot of rules and she paid the price. People either loved her or loathed her, but she never bored them.”

Retta Blaney’s book, Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors, features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams and others.

National Catholic Reporter, October 14, 2005

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